TL; DR(eview) - A story that feels more like a middle-of-the-road Battlestar Galactica tale than an engrossing war film, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s first foray into the final frontier benefits from solid ground combat and zero-gravity combat that feels a bit less so, while also serving up some notably dull spaceship combat.
Since 2003 (my first year of college), Call of Duty has been an industry leader in the First-Person Shooter genre. The franchise has amassed such a following that its annual installment has routinely been the top-selling title of its given year. The series has sold well over 250 million copies and grossed over $10 billion for Activision. According Wikipedia’s list of highest-selling gaming franchises, only Mario, Tetris, and Pokemon have outperformed it (all with more years behind them). And yet, I managed to avoid the series until this year. So how was my first foray into the series?
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare gives you control of Lieutenant Nick Reyes, as portrayed by actor and game writer Brian Bloom (who won me over earlier this year as B.J. Blazkowicz when I played 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order). While celebrating Fleet Week on Earth, the United Nations Space Alliance (UNSA) is severely crippled by the Mars-based Settlement Defense Front (SDF), led by Rear Admiral Salen Kotch (Kit Harington of Game of Thrones). In the surprise attack, Reyes escapes to one of the surviving warships, the Retribution, alongside his friend Lieutenant Nora Salter and a newly unveiled robot AI ally: E3N (or “Ethan”). With the Retribution’s previous captain killed-in-action, Reyes is given a wartime promotion and command of the ship.
If you watched the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series, you’ll likely have a lot of the same déjà vu I did. Instead of a Cylon sneak attack, your enemy is comprised of descendants of former earthlings who seceded from the UNSA. The Vipers of Battlestar Galactica are Jackals in the Call of Duty universe, with Reyes and “Salt” even being somewhat reminiscent of Lee “Apollo” Adama and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. Even later story beats involving the only other surviving warship, the Tigris, reminded me of Galactica’s relationship with the Pegasus.
The core story occurs over a handful of missions involving the hands-on Captain Reyes taking the fight to the SDF. Kotch’s plan wasn’t fully implemented so Reyes and his crew try to capitalize on the intel they have before the SDF can fully mobilize. The game also provides a series of non-linear side missions that you can engage it to take out high-value military targets or obtain ship and weapon upgrades. These all serve as stand-alone levels though and therefore felt somewhat disconnected from the life-or-death narrative of the main story missions.
* Minor story spoilers below. If that's concerning, skip ahead to The Gameplay section below.
As for that main narrative: I was somewhat underwhelmed. Character development clearly isn’t a focus here so it’s hard to be invested in all but one or two of the characters. And even in those cases, the investment mostly comes from “well these are the guys I’ve spent the most time with so I guess I should care about them, right?” Normally, I wouldn’t even worry about trying to connect with these mostly-generic military characters, except that Infinite Warfare is expecting me too, by killing off characters in an attempt to illicit an emotional response. But with thousands upon thousands of soldiers being killed in the opening attack, and then more and more throughout the campaign, trying to make the deaths more personal by picking off a couple of people I kind of sort of know the names of winds up unearned and slightly hollow. The epilogue to the game, detailing just how few people “survive” the war actually wound up sticking with me far more than some of the crew members the campaign sacrifices.
Furthermore, Harington’s Kotch isn’t a particularly memorable villain (hell I only know the name because I have the wikipedia page up as I write this). He doesn’t have any personal ties to any of the main characters. He’s purely there to spout fanatical anti-UNSA dogma throughout his occasional appearances “hacking” into your helmet to threaten Earth and demand your surrender. He’s also dispatched forgettably about two-thirds of the way through the campaign, leaving the “big bad” of the final few levels as nothing more than corridors of faceless insurgent human and robot forces.
Probably the most consistent thing I’ve heard about Call of Duty over the years (aside from the always-wrong predictions about this being the year that Call of Duty “fails”), is that the series is the gold-standard for shooter mechanics. Which is a very weird claim to try and verify, coming into the series so late and having played a multitude of shooters that were inevitably inspired by earlier iterations.
For example, coming hot off the heels of Titanfall 2, something like wall-running (admittedly a Titanfall staple more than a Call of Duty one) doesn’t feel special. But it also almost feels like an afterthought given the number of times I used it in the campaign. As if they said, “well we started including wall-running with Advanced Warfare and it comes in handy in multiplayer, so let’s remember to include a section or two in the story, as well.”
The combat can mostly be broken up into three types: standard combat, zero-gravity combat, and Jackal combat. The standard combat feels good for the most part: fast-paced and frenetic. You go into each level with a starting load-out of firearms, lethal equipment (like shock or anti-gravity grenades), and tactical equipment (like a hacking device that can give you control over enemy robots or a retractable shield). Additional guns and ammunition can be picked up off of fallen enemies. Each new weapon you pick up is even automatically scanned and can then be effectively 3D-printed and added to your starting loadout next time. Crates of the secondary lethal and tactical equipment can also be found throughout the levels.
As an outsider to the series (that’s probably the fourth of fifth time I’ve written that but it’s staying in this time), it would appear that these lethal/tactical equipment make up the brunt of the “new” gear in this installment, given how sporadically they are doled out through the campaign in scenarios seemingly designed to serve as tutorials. The first time you encounter the enemy robot forces, for example, Ethan gives you a hacking device, forcing you to take control of the enemy bot. Doing so, you can shoot the other enemy forces until you suffer enough damage and self-destruct. You can also trigger the self-destruct manually; I often hacked into an enemy in a crowded combat zone and ran them straight into a group of enemy soldiers as a suicide bomb of sorts. Other equipment that felt like they received these parsed-out introductions were the shock grenades, seekers, anti-gravity grenades, retractable shield, foam wall, and the ATAD (something something something Drone). I found myself definitely gravitating toward a couple items (namely the shock grenades) but I definitely didn’t approach each mission with any kind of tactical know-how. I mostly just took whatever the default configuration was and picked up weapons throughout.
The zero-gravity combat is slightly slower, adding the extra axis to maneuver around. In this sequences, you’ll have a grapple hook that can be used either for mobility or to pull an enemy to you for a quick melee kill. These sections also feature grenades with little rocket thrusters of there own so they actually travel to your target rather than just float in space. Even with those extra tools, I found myself picking off enemies from afar during these sections. Movement is mostly slow and clumsy so trying to float headfirst into a firefight almost never ended well for me. I had much better luck with a sniper rifle and a good scope in these sections.
The last main pillar of combat in this game was the Jackal combat. Jackal missions almost always boil down to two approaches: bombarding large freighters with a lot of firepower and dogfighting smaller fighters. As a result of this repetition, as well as the fact that locking onto an enemy fighter will basically throw your ship into autopilot until you disengage or shoot them down, these sections wind up feeling far too simple and monotonous. These feel like the real “filler” of the game, an idea seemingly supported by the notion that most of the side missions that immediately open up are these Jackal missions. I think cutting them entirely save the few segments in the main narrative would have made for a stronger, tighter overall product. But I also recognize that this view is probably fueled by the fact that I played through every side mission before moving on with the main narrative so I did have a lot of repetitive missions front-loaded in my experience. Maybe if I had spread them out more over the campaign I would feel differently. But I would also argue that by allowing most of them to be accessible and played as such, Infinity Ward probably felt more confident about the experience than I received it.
It is a really weird experience to come into a franchise, even one that perhaps only thematically ties together, thirteen years in. It is impossible to block out all of the things I’ve heard about Call of Duty over the years. Knowing the game is largely lauded for its consistently enjoyable multiplayer doesn’t mean a thing to me. Hearing “the mechanics are always great” but “this is the year it fails” is an odd perception to bring into the game. Hell, even (in fact probably moreso) going from Battlefield 1 to Titanfall 2 to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare colors my experience with this game drastically differently than if I had played this before Titanfall, or Wolfenstein, or Doom, or Destiny, or Borderlands, and on and on.
But I didn’t.
I came into this game with certain expectations. Some were met. Some were exceeded. And in some cases, the game fell short. As is the case with almost every game, movie, media we consume. Overall, I had a good time with my first Call of Duty game. It didn’t blow me away to the point of going back and playing every entry I can get my hands on. But, as you’ll see tomorrow with my Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered review, it also didn’t drive me away from the series with cries of “never again.” I imagine, as with a lot of games I play, I’ll look around this time next year and if I find myself with a weekend to kill and in the mood for a shooter, I’ll spend some time with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare 2 (or whatever comes in 2017)